Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana

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Nehanda Nyakasikana (left) and Sekuru Kaguvi (right), after their 1897 capture

Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana also known as Mbuya Nehanda (c. 1840–1898) was a svikiro, or spirit medium of the Zezuru Shona people. She was a medium of Nehanda, a female Shona mhondoro.(powerful and respected ancestral spirit)[1] As one of the spiritual leaders of the Shona, she was one of the leaders of the revolt against the British South Africa Company's colonisation of Zimbabwe led by Cecil John Rhodes in 1889[2]. This war was later called, The First Chimurenga. She was a Hera of the Hwata Mufakose Dynasty. She and her ally who some historians claim was her husband, Sekuru Kaguvi were eventually captured and executed by the British.[3] She has been commemorated by Zimbabweans through the building of statues in her name, street names, hospitals, songs, novels, and poems.[4] THe legacy of the medium continued to be linked to the theme of resistance, particularly the guerrilla war that began in 1972. Her name became of increasing importance to the nationalist movements in Zimbabwe. [5]

History of the spirit Nehanda[edit]

The spirit Nehanda is said to be the mhondoro, a royal mudzimu (ancestral spirit) or "lion spirit",that uses women as her mediums. The mediums are given the title Nehanda or Mbuya Nehanda.[6] At one time this spirit resided in one of the daughters of Nyatsimba Mutota, the first leader of the Munhumutapa state.[7] Mhondoro are based in central and north Mashonaland in Zimbabwe. They were revered spirits among the Shona, as the Shona people believed that they could interpret the orders and wishes of Mwari.[8] According to historical sources the original Nehanda was, Nyamhita, the daughter of the first Monomatapa Mutota, who was living in the escarpment north of Sipolilo in about 1430. Mutota, was the founder of the Mutapa state. He had a son who later became the second Monomatapa, and the son was called Matope. Matope was Nehanda’s half brother, and to increase the power of Matope, Mutota ordered his son to commit incest with his half sister, Nyamhika, who became widely known as Nehanda. This incest ritual was believed to have resulted in the increase of Matope’s rule and empire. Matope handed over a portion of his empire to Nehanda who became so powerful and well known that her spirit lived on in the human bodies of various spirit mediums until almost 500 years later when it was believed to occupy the body of the Mazoe Nehanda.o). During periods of possession by the spirit, spirit mediums were believed to be speaking with the voice and personality of the original Nehanda and not with their own.[9]

Biography of Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana[edit]

Charwe Nyasikana was born in 1862, in what is today called the Chishawasha District located in Central Mashonaland. She was the daughter of a man named Chitaura, who was the younger son of Shayachimwe. Her grandfather, Shayachimwe, founded the Hwata dynasty in the upper Mazowe valley in the late eighteenth century.[10] She married and had two daughters and a son, but the name of her husband is not recalled.[11] Living in the hills around Mazoe, Zimbabwe, in the mid 19th century, were various sub-chiefs including Chidamba. In Chidamba's village lived Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana, who was considered to be the female incarnation of the oracle spirit Nehanda. D. N. Beach suggests that she became possessed by the spirit in 1884.[12]

As medium of the spirit Nehanda, Nyakasikana made oracular pronouncements and performed traditional ceremonies that were thought to ensure rain and good crops. She held great authority even before the 1896-7 rebellion. She was a powerful woman and staunchly committed to upholding traditional Shona culture. In a map drawn by missionaries (c. 1888) displaying work by the Church, there is a village called Nehanda's. Mbuya Nehanda was instrumental in organising the nationwide resistance to colonial rule during the First Chimurenga of 1896–7. Even Lobengula recognised her as a powerful spiritual medium in the land. When British settlers arrived, historians claim that Nehanda Charwe Nyasikana was one of the most powerful and influential religious leaders in Mashonaland, occupying an important and influential position within the top religious order hierarchy. She is the only recorded woman in Zimbabwe known to have held such a significant position during the 19th century.[13]

Her Role in the First Chimurenga[edit]

Nehande Charwe Nyakasikana at first promoted good relations between the Zezuru people and early European settlers. As white settlement increased in the land, according to sources Nehanda initially welcomed the occupation by the pioneers and counseled her followers to be friendly towards them. "Don't be afraid of them," she said, "as they are only traders, but take a black cow to them and say this is the meat with which we greet you." Unfortunately relationships became strained when the settlers started imposing taxes, forced relocations, introduced forced labour etc. Following the imposition of a "hut tax" and other tax assessments in 1894, both the Ndebele and Shona people revolted in June 1896, in what became known as the First Chimurenga or Second Matabele War. The rebellion, in Mashonaland at least, was encouraged by traditional religious leaders including Nyakasikana. Due to the cultural beliefs of the locals, the leading roles behind the rebellion were three spirit mediums. The rebellion was initiated in Matebeland in May 1896, the leading role there being Mukwati, in October 1896 Kaguvi and Nehanda from Mashonaland joined in; these were the three critical people behind the rebellion.

Kaguvi (aka Kagubi) was believed to be the spirit husband of the other great Shona spirit, Nehanda, and it may have been this connection which enabled him to persuade Mbuya Nehanda to preach the gospel of war resistance in Mashonaland, which led to the first Chimurenga. The role as well as the influence of the spirit mediums in form of Kaguvi and Nehanda, cannot be understated. As far as the people were concerned Nehanda and Kaguvi were the voices of God aka 'Mwari'. Kaguvi and later Nehanda (after being convinced by Kaguvi) preached that according to Mwari the cause of all the trouble that had come upon the land was the white man. They had brought the locusts and the rinderpest, and to crown it all the owners of the cattle which had died were not allowed to eat the meat of the carcasses, which had to be burned or buried. Mwari decreed that the white men were to be driven from the country; that the natives had nothing to fear because Mwari would turn the bullets of the white man into water. A public press photograph was taken of Nehanda and Kaguvi in 1897 to display their success.[14]

After the end of the rebellion in 1897, Nyakasikana was captured and charged with the murder of Native Commissioner Henry Hawkins Pollard in 1896. She was found guilty after eyewitnesses claimed that she had ordered an associate to chop Pollard's head off. Consequently, she was hanged in March 1898.[15][16] Much mythology grew up around the difficulty involved in killing her.[17]


Nehanda’s heroism became a significant source of inspiration in the nationalist struggle for liberation in the 1960s and 1970s. Her name is now usually prefixed by the respectful title of Mbuya, or grandmother. The maternity section of Parirenyatwa Hospital in Harare is named after her. The College of Health Sciences of the University of Zimbabwe is located there as well.


  1. ^ Mazama, Ama (23 April 2019). "Charwe". Encyclopedia Britannica.
  2. ^ Dube, Zorodzai (10 October 2018). "The ancestors, violence and democracy in Zimbabwe" (PDF). Verbum et Eccle. 39: 3 – via ISSN: (Online) 2074-7705.
  3. ^ "The Suppressed Histories". Female Liberators. Retrieved 1 May 2006.
  4. ^ Beach, D. N. (1998). "An Innocent Woman, Unjustly Accused? Charwe, Medium of the Nehanda Mhondoro Spirit, and the 1896–97 Central Shona Rising in Zimbabwe". History in Africa. 25: 27–54. doi:10.2307/3172179. ISSN 0361-5413. JSTOR 3172179.
  5. ^ Mazama, Ama (2009), "Nehanda", Encyclopedia of African Religion, SAGE Publications, Inc., doi:10.4135/9781412964623.n280, ISBN 9781412936361
  6. ^ "Nehanda | Shona religion". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 26 April 2019.
  7. ^ "History profile of Mbuya Nehanda". Mbuya Nehanda. Retrieved 16 May 2006.
  8. ^ "Nehanda | Shona religion". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 26 April 2019.
  9. ^ Beach, D. N. (1998). "An Innocent Woman, Unjustly Accused? Charwe, Medium of the Nehanda Mhondoro Spirit, and the 1896–97 Central Shona Rising in Zimbabwe". History in Africa. 25: 27–54. doi:10.2307/3172179. ISSN 0361-5413. JSTOR 3172179.
  10. ^ Beach, D. N. (1998). "An Innocent Woman, Unjustly Accused? Charwe, Medium of the Nehanda Mhondoro Spirit, and the 1896–97 Central Shona Rising in Zimbabwe". History in Africa. 25: 27–54. doi:10.2307/3172179. ISSN 0361-5413. JSTOR 3172179.
  11. ^ Hasegawa, Tsuyoshi (2017), "Bloody Sunday: February 26", The February Revolution, Petrograd, 1917, Brill, pp. 262–276, doi:10.1163/9789004354937_016, ISBN 9789004354937 |chapter= ignored (help)
  12. ^ Beach, D. N. (1 January 1998). "An Innocent Woman, Unjustly Accused? Charwe, Medium of the Nehanda Mhondoro Spirit, and the 1896-97 Central Shona Rising in Zimbabwe". History in Africa. 25: 27–54 (29). doi:10.2307/3172179. JSTOR 3172179.
  13. ^ Mutunhu, Tendai (1976–1977). Nehanda of Zimbabwe (Rhodesia) : the story of a woman liberation leader and fighter. OCLC 772541723.
  14. ^ Yvonne Vera: The fearless taboo queen, Ivor Hartmann, Munyori Literary Journal, March / April 2009
  15. ^ The Struggle for Zimbabwe : The Chimurenga War, David Martin/Phyllis Johnson, Zimbabwe Publishing House,1981
  16. ^ Modern Africa: A social and political history (2nd ed.), Basil Davidson, Longman Group, 1989
  17. ^ Keller, Mary (2005). The Hammer and the Flute: Women, Power, and Spirit Possession. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 139. ISBN 978-0-8018-8188-6.

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